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Housing Plan Sparks Battle for Open Space in Westchester

Times Staff Writer

Sterling Honea describes the vacant field next to his home in the Kentwood area of Westchester as an idyllic spot where joggers, dogs, children and wildlife find refuge from urban congestion.

Across the field is a spectacular view of West Los Angeles, Century City and Westwood.

“It’s a beautiful area,” said Honea, a 39-year-old attorney. But it’s now a battleground between Howard Hughes Realty Inc., which owns the land and wants city approval to build homes there, and residents who would like to keep the open space or, failing that, force Hughes to reduce the number of planned homes by 40%.

The Hughes proposal would create 205 lots on 42 acres on two areas of the bluff. The terraced subdivisions would overlook Playa Vista, a proposed community of homes, apartments and offices extending to Marina del Rey. Summa Corp., the parent company of Howard Hughes Realty, is the developer of Playa Vista and of the Howard Hughes Center, a giant office-hotel complex being built nearby.

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Life Style at Issue

All of the developments have been under attack from homeowners who say they want to preserve a small-town way of life in their part of Westchester.

“It seems to me that not every square inch of land that was owned by Howard Hughes needs to be developed,” Honea said. “Can’t they leave one little area for people who live there to walk around, enjoy the fresh air and watch the birds and gophers?”

Honea and dozens of other homeowners have written letters and signed petitions urging the Los Angeles Planning Department to reject the Hughes Realty housing proposal and preserve the land for recreation. If the development plan is approved, the homeowners have urged the department to reduce the number of houses.

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The petitions and letters are in response to a draft environmental impact report that was prepared for Hughes Realty by Planning Consultants Research of Santa Monica and is being circulated by the city Planning Department. The department is accepting comments from the public on the report until Monday as part of the process leading to approval of a final environmental impact report.

Walter Hoffman, president of Kentwood Home Guardians, an organization that represents 3,200 Westchester homeowners, said he sees “very little” chance of stopping the project since it conforms with zoning requirements.

Residents have different opinions on the project, he said. Some want to stop any development, while others would accept single-family homes if the density is low enough.

Hoffman said there is “plenty of room for 100 or so houses,” but not 205.

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Stephanie Miller, vice president of Howard Hughes Realty, said other residents do not regard the vacant land as a pleasant patch of open space but as an “eyesore,” and would welcome high-quality housing to upgrade property values.

Hoffman said many of the homes in the neighborhood were built in the 1950s and are valued at $200,000 and higher, but he has heard that many of the new homes would sell for much more.

However, Miller said no builder has been selected and she has no idea what the selling prices would be. Hughes Realty does not intend to build the homes itself but plans to sell the land to a builder, she said.

Miller said residents have fought growth with the claim that the area is job-rich but housing-poor. Now comes a proposal to ease the housing shortage with single-family homes, she said, and it is also attacked.

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South of Runway

The bluff on which the homes would be built lies south of the Hughes airport runway and west of Sepulveda Boulevard. One subdivision of 120 lots would occupy 25 acres north of Kentwood Avenue and Riggs Place. The other subdivision, separated from the first by a ravine, a school and existing houses, would contain 85 lots on 17 acres north of Denrock Avenue at Dunbarton Avenue.

The property north of Denrock Avenue contains a well-worn circular path. Honea, whose home abuts the property, has requested that Councilwoman Pat Russell ask the city attorney whether Hughes Realty has, in effect, given the land for public use by failing to bar the public from it.

Honea cited a 1970 state Supreme Court case that held that a Santa Cruz property owner’s failure to halt public use over a five-year period had given the public the right of continued access.

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The field north of Denrock is posted with “No Trespassing” signs and fenced with cables and a gate that blocks vehicles but not pedestrians. As many as 50 people a day walk on the property and the public has been using it for 30 years or more, Honea said.

Hughes’ Intentions

“It is reasonably clear that when Howard Hughes bought this land he never intended for it to become a part of the Westchester housing subdivision, but rather to be a buffer area of open space,” Honea said.

But Miller said Hughes Realty has tried to keep the public off its land for years. In addition to installing signs and fences, she said, the company has employed a security patrol.

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She said the property has long been zoned for single-family housing and its eventual development should not come as a surprise.

“We’ve always had the right to develop it,” Miller said.

Russell, whose district includes Westchester, said she has not seen Honea’s letter and does not know whether she will ask the city attorney to consider Honea’s claim.

Russell said she lived near the vacant field years ago and her children flew kites there. Long before she ran for City Council, she said, she remembers walking in the neighborhood and thinking, “I sure hope the city does the right thing” when the time comes to develop the vacant property.

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Russell said she meant that the city should keep condominiums and apartments from being built and maintain the area for single-family homes.

Russell said she has not endorsed the proposed subdivisions but supports construction of single-family homes in harmony with the neighborhood.

Size of Lots

Although residents have complained that the lots are too small, Miller said the proposed lots are similar in size to others in the area. She said the smallest lot would be 5,000 square feet, but most would range from 6,500 square feet to 7,800.

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Other complaints have focused on the project’s impact on traffic.

Mim Gaspari, who has lived in the area for 24 years, said cars are already backed up on 77th Street at Sepulveda Boulevard during the morning rush hour. Traffic from the subdivisions would flow onto 77th Street.

Miller said the Sepulveda Boulevard-77th Street intersection is scheduled for improvement by the city. Traffic studies undertaken for the draft environmental impact report showed that “the project will result in minimal traffic impact on neighborhood streets and intersections.”

Kentwood Home Guardians has distributed flyers to residents urging them to write the Planning Department to complain that an increase in population would burden fire, police, park and library services, which the environmental report acknowledges are inadequate.

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Howard Towner, a Loyola Marymount University biology professor who lives near the proposed subdivisions, said he is concerned about the area’s wildlife. Hawks and other birds feed there, he said, and would be forced out unless some of the bluff and its natural vegetation are preserved.

The consultants who prepard the environmental study reported sighting a burrowing owl, which is on the state’s list of “bird species of special concern.” The state Department of Fish and Game has recommended that the developer be required to help relocate the owls before homes are built.

Miller said she knows nothing about burrowing owls, but added that her company will cooperate in relocating them if the city imposes that condition. Other problems, such as a complaint by the Fire Department about inadequate access to the subdivisions, also can be resolved, she said.

More difficult to address, she said, are objections raised by neighbors whose views would be blocked by the homes. She said some homeowners have lived there for 40 years and it is understandable that they resent the intrusion.

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But, she said, “it’s physically impossible to build without blocking some views.”

All of the complaints raised by residents and others in response to the environmental impact report will be reviewed by the city planning staff. Julia K. Witz, project coordinator, said once the environmental impact report is completed, the developer must still obtain approval from the City Council before construction can begin.


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